How to Build and Operate a Content Marketing Machine

Posted by Toby Murdock

Content Marketing is hot. White hot. SEO and digital marketing thought leaders are declaring that Content Marketing is the next big thing. Even Rand is touting its importance.

The strategy of Content Marketing makes sense: instead of pushing messages about your product at prospects, pull prospects towards you by publishing content about your prospects’ interests. Search rank, traffic, leads and all sort of goodness flow from this approach.

So the conversation is no longer about if or why an organization should practice Content Marketing. But the still unanswered question is “How?” How does a brand actually become a publisher, produce great content, and attract traffic and generate conversions?

So if you’re wondering “How?”, fear not. This post will provide a guide on how to build and operate a Content Marketing Machine. But, to be clear, I’m not talking about dipping a toe in the water: doing some blog posts, busting out an infographic. I’m talking about a sustained effort to generate content excellence in your category. I’m talking about a machine that generates more traffic and leads at lower cost than all of your other channels combined.

The Machine

First, let’s take a look at the machine, all of its pistons, cogs, smokestacks and miscellaneous parts. This will give you an overview of what you’re building and what you’re going to operate:

Now we’ll go over the machine, part by part.

Goals & Plan

What is the goal, the end output for your Content Marketing Machine? Content marketing is utilized for lots of objectives, including customer retention, upsell, support and brand awareness. But by far the major objective for most Content Marketers is Lead Generation / Customer Acquisition, which can take the form of adding an item to a shopping cart, filling out a lead-gen form, or signing up for a trial.

Your plan then becomes to create a content-powered path that takes your prospect from where they are today to the end goal. This plan is best plotted on a matrix, called The Content Grid, where one axis lists your customer personas and the other axis lists your various stages in the buying cycle. We can do a close-up on this part of the machine here:

Then for each cell in this grid, you have to ascertain what content can attract the persona to that stage and help move them on to the next stage. Specifically each cell should answer the following questions:

  • What questions does the Persona want to answer at this stage in the process?
  • What are the topics and categories that would provide this content and answer these questions?
  • What are some sample headlines for content in each cell?
  • What formats (blog posts, videos, eBooks, etc.) would this content be delivered through?

Remember, at the top of your buying cycle, the prospect does not care at all about you and your brand. Your content here should be at some intersection between your prospect’s interests and the expertise within your organization. The content here at the top should never promote your own products and services. But as you move down the Content Grid and the prospect has indicated interest in your products and services, your content should provide more information about them.

Team

So you’ve got a plan. Now you have to figure out who is going to execute it. Begin by looking at your grid. Who can produce these pieces of content? Is it going to be internal contributors? External paid freelancers? Guest posters?

Naturally this depends a good amount on your budget. But for most organizations it is a mix of internal and external contributors: you want to utilize your unique internal expertise, but you also use external talents to share the burden, particularly on rich media content like video and infographics.

While there is a variance in the mix for the set of contributors, there is one consistent, crucial role: the Managing Editor. Many stakeholders will submit ideas and content into the Content Marketing Machine, will turn its Audience Development crank, and will pull leads and reports out of the Machine. But you need at least one person whose primary responsibility is to man the controls of the machine: to plan the editorial calendar, to supervise content production and distribution, to generate traffic and conversions, to monitor metrics and to be accountable for results. Without such a person, you aren’t operating a Machine, but rather a small appliance (perhaps a Content Marketing toaster).

Ideally the Managing Editor should have content experience from a journalism, copy writing or PR background. But the Managing Editor should also know the web and the ways of search, social, analytics and link-building. Lastly the Managing Editor should be familiar with marketing and the end objectives of driving traffic and conversions.

Ideas

The Ideas section of the Content Marketing Machine is where marketers most often struggle. In the Content Marketing Institute’s 2012 Content Marketing Research Report, over half cited consistently outputting content as their greatest challenge, which a particular struggle over figuring out what to produce. To truly become a publisher requires consistently producing content 3, 4, 5 times a week. What in the world, marketers lament, am I going to write about every day?

Remember: the bulk of the content that you are going to produce is about your customers’ interests, not about your products. Thus the best way to generate content ideas is to understand what your customers are interested in.

There are two best practices for idea generation. First is online social listening. Dive into the categories you are covering on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. See what topics the communities are interested in. Q&A sites like Quora and Yahoo Answers can identify the specific questions your prospects want answered.

The other best practice is to leverage the ears in your organization. Your colleagues in sales, services, support, etc. are talking with customers every day. Encourage them to listen for nuggets of customer concern and then submit those into the Content Marketing team. To give your colleagues incentive to participate, make sure that their submissions don’t end up in a black box. Instead, if you reject them, let them know. If you accept them and convert the idea into content, keep them informed of the content and how it performs. The best organizations at this even keep a leaderboard to showcase which employees are making the best contribution to the Content Marketing ideas effort.

Production

As you get your idea generation going, you’ll then need to operate the heart of the Content Marketing Machine, the content production. The centerpiece of production is an Editorial Calendar. The calendar should specify who is going to create what piece of content, when they will have it submitted, when you plan on publishing it, and to where you plan on publishing it (your site, YouTube, Slideshare, all of the above, etc.).

The Editorial Calendar should look something like this:
 

In your Editorial Calendar you should also note the Customer Persona and Buying Stage that the content is intended for. As you look over your Calendar, you should be able to visually see whether or not you producing the right content mix to cover the various cells in your Content Grid.

Many organizations can get buried in the logistics of the Production stage. Many stakeholders can be involved, including: the idea generator, the content creator, graphic designers, the Managing Editor, the SEO expert, the social media team, Legal & PR (for approvals), etc. Often too much of the effort goes into coordinating these players instead of creating great content.

If you’re in a moderately sized organization with decent complexity, make sure your map out the process involved to get content out the door. Who will submit the content? Who needs to approve it and at what stage of the process? Who is going to be posting messages to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn once the content has been published? Identify the required workflows and have a plan to manage them so that your efforts don’t get consumed by administrative tasks.

Audience Development

So you’re publishing content now! Your machine is up and running! Congratulations!
However, creating the content is just half of your task. The other half needs to be around getting visitors to that content, which is the Audience Development component of the Content Marketing Machine. Audience Development breaks down into 4 major buckets:

  • Influencers
  • Search
  • Paid
  • Syndication

Influencers. Influencers are the most important component of Audience Development. Begin by identifying the influencers in your space: the individuals and organizations in your topic that have lots of visitors to their sites, followers to their Twitter accounts, etc. In other words, these are the places on the web where the prospects who you want to read your content hang out.

Your objective is to win links from these Influencers to your content. Get started by building relationships with these Influencers. Retweet their tweets. Comment on their blogs. Get into a dialog.

Once you’ve gotten on the influencer’s radar, craft content with the end objective--the Influencer link--in mind. Ask yourself: What content would be of enough interest to this Influencer that they would want to share it with their audience? Or try to bring the Influencer into the process from the start: tell them that you are working on a piece of content and would appreciate their feedback or a quote.

Search. Winning these Influencer links is the key to getting referral traffic to your content. It is also the biggest way that you can improve category two in Audience Development: search traffic. Win links from authoritative influencers, and the Search Engines will improve your rank, driving more traffic. Of course you need to be deliberate about this process: identify the search keywords that your personas will search for; target and optimize your content for keyword; and track how your content efforts, keyword by keyword, are effecting your search ranking.

Paid. Despite all of the inbound, organic goodness that Content Marketing centers on, Paid traffic does have a place in the mix. Whether it is SEM, or Facebook ads, or sponsored Tweets, or paid Email newsletter distribution, using paid tactics to drive content part of Content Marketing Machine mechanism. What’s interesting to note, however, is how Content Marketers are using paid to drive traffic to their content pages (i.e. about the prospect’s interests) instead of their product pages (about the marketer’s products). The process of developing a relationship with a prospect built on informative content is so powerful that marketers are taking the more patient but more effective approach of buying traffic to their content.

Syndication. Finally, the content you produce need not be limited to your own properties, whether your site, YouTube account, Slideshare account, etc. The most straightforward way to earn a link from a site where your prospects frequent is to give that site quality content. Syndicating your content earns at least one link to your site through your author bio, but also begins to develop a relationship between you and your prospects before they have ever visited your site. Particularly at the beginning, others sites have a lot more traffic than yours does, so syndicating content there is a great way to get your traffic off the ground.

Measurement & Conversion

OK, now the Machine is running full tilt! You have content being produced, and visitors coming for that content. As the Machine runs, you need to keep an eye on a set of gauges for each part of the machine so that you can learn how it’s running and continue to tune it and optimize performance.

Ideas & Production. Keep an eye on the mix of content you are pushing out the door. Do you have the right distribution across the personas from your Content Grid? Are you hitting the relevant categories?

Audience Development. What Influencers are sending you the most traffic? You should be sure to express your gratitude to these Influencers and link back to them. What types of content are succeeding in generating the most valuable links? You need to double down on that content. What keywords have high search volumes but fail to drive you much traffic? You need to improve your production of content around these keywords to improve your rank. Which paid channels are proving the most cost effective traffic?

Traffic & Conversion. This is the major objective as it gets to our end goal of the conversion. All of your content needs to be assessed for how it is performing in bringing first time visitors to your site, bringing back returning visitors, and moving them down the buying cycle, particularly to the conversion event (e.g. form submission; add to cart; start a trial) that you are looking to track. Score all of your content on these objectives, and look for the trends: which authors are pulling in the most new visitors? which content types (e.g. blog post, eBook, video) are keeping each of my personas coming back? which categories of content are leading to the most conversion events.

Every initial content strategy is a best guess. Only by operating your Machine and monitoring your metrics can you understand what’s working and what’s not working and improve your performance over time.

Building Your Own Machine (versus Renting Someone Else’s)

And indeed, you have to recognize that the results of Content Marketing accrue over time. Traditional marketing tactics, i.e. advertising, involve the Marketer renting the attention of someone else’s audience: the marketer pays the media to be able to put the marketer’s message in front of the media’s audience. Despite the problems of advertising, this renting has immediate effects, because the media already has an audience.

Content Marketing takes longer, particularly because, when you start, you have no audience! But don’t be deterred! Just like the difference between buying and renting a house, with Content Marketing, you are building equity as your build your audience. Over time, your audience becomes an incredible asset: a perpetual source of leads / trials / new customers at extremely low cost relative to traditional marketing (i.e. advertising). There are now many brands who have successfully built and now operate such a Content Marketing Machine (here are 50 examples).

This highest state of Content Marketing nirvana is for your Content Marketing Machine to become self-perpetuating. Typically the machine works with content as the input and audience / leads as the output. But once you’ve become such the authority on your topic, your output, the audience, will begin to supply the inputs, the content (see prior section on Syndication).

SEOmoz has, very deservedly, reached this highest state of Content Marketing nirvana. I, in fact, am an audience member providing the inputs! I hope that these inputs, this content, have been helpful to you as you look to build and operate your own Content Marketing Machine. I’m eager to answer any questions. Please fire away in the comments!


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